Thursday, 27 December 2012


Continuing my theme of recent posts regarding the flooding at Harty, Sheppey, some of you will recall visiting the two RSPB fields below Muswell Manor, Leysdown last winter in order to spot the Lapland Bunting flock that had built up there. The buntings were feeding on the weed seed in both of the fields and the flock built up to around 60 odd birds.
The two fields are seperated by a raised bund and I took these photos this morning at sunrise, standing on the bund looking towards Shellness Hamlet. All four photos are of the left-hand field, which as you can see, indicates the extent of flooding both on those two fields and on The Swale NNR alongside. Hard to believe buntings were feeding in this field last winter. (Sorry about the darkness of the photos but sunrise was being threatened by approaching dark rain clouds at the time)

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Boxing Day Blue Skies

Getting up this morning at 5.30 as usual, the first thing I spotted out of the window was a full moon setting in the western sky, and a clear sky full of stars at that - actually no rain for once! That definitely meant an early visit to the reserve to take full advantage of a potential sunny and dry morning - such a rare occurrence just lately.
With the area around the reserve barn somewhat flooded and mucky I parked the car at Elliotts Farm on the bend of the Harty Road and spent 10 mins. walking down to the reserve. As you can see from the photo above, it was still fairly dark as I did so and only towards the east was there any lightness in the sky, but it was really great and both myself and the dogs were overjoyed to be out again after spending all day yesterday indoors.

Arriving at, and leaving the reserve barn behind, the next daunting task was to attempt the somewhat hazardous trek across the marsh to the sea wall. Above you can see the gate upright in the flood which indicates where the track is, once through that you turn right and wade through huge areas of flooding and soft mud to get to the sea wall in the distance, not made easy by the limited light.

Halfway across, I stopped to take yet another photo of the flooded grazing marsh. Some of you may recall my posting with the purple toadstool a few months ago, this is where it was taken, hardly condusive to fungi growing now!
It's hard to convey how hard that journey across the marsh now is, you are either wading through water that threatens to flood your wellies, or forever pulling your feet, step by step, out of deep and clinging mud. But hero that I am, I eventually climbed up onto the lofty heights of the sea wall and took in the beauty that is The Swale with the dawn sky behind it. Being Boxing Day, that traditional day for killing things in the countryside by various groups of people, I had anticipated, indeed trekked through mud and water to confirm it, that there would be numerous wildfowlers on the saltings in front of the reserve. A squint through my binoculars though, through the fast improving light, only found one such hardy soul and clearly with no visible wildfowl about he wasn't having the best of mornings. Not long after, once the sky had brightened to that of daylight and the sun threatened the horizon, he cleared off home, explaining to me how depressing and quiet it all has been. I could see what he meant, a scan around the reserve found excessively flooded fields and ditches that had burst their banks, conditions heaven made for wildfowl and yet there wasn't a duck or goose to be seen at all. A few small flocks of Lapwings and Carrion Crows, the odd Curlew and Mute Swan and that was it, how does a reserve with such perfect conditions become so empty, we had a crap summer, surely the winter  isn't going to be as bad.

I carried on back across the reserve by a different route, it took me and the dogs through the current sheep flock, looking a tad unhappy in such wet conditions, although I know little about what's good or bad for sheep. One was trapped on its side away from the flock, it regularly happens with sheep with thick fleeces, after lying down they sometimes find it difficult to get upright again and if left for a long period of time, they lose the blood supply to one limb and can eventually die. A bootful of water later I got across to the sheep and struggled to get it upright by lifting it up and supporting it against my leg until the blood supply returned to the dead leg. I tried to walk it around until it returned to normal but it was struggling and regularly fell back over again and so I rang the grazier and left it to him to arrive and sort out the problem.

Moving on and smelling like the inside of a sheep pen, something the dogs reminded me of by keeping their distance, I still hadn't seen a decent bird. I passed another two duck shooters, sitting round a farmland duck flight pond the other side of the reserve fence, they too had seen nothing resembling wildfowl and were just packing up. However, eventually bingo happened, I came across three Pied Wagtails and with them was a Water Pipit - my first ever, it all turned out a good day, blue skies, sunshine and a new bird, it was worth coming.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Year of Extremes

The flooding on the reserve continues to increase by the week and with another series of rainy days forecast for the next week, things look like getting worse. We haven't quite reached the levels seen in the photos above, taken around five years ago, but it's a fair bet that early into the New Year we will have done.
Obviously it makes fantastic and attractive habitat for all manner of wildfowl and wading birds and indeed, they become spoilt for choice so to speak, but it makes it bloody difficult, indeed depressing, trying to find a way round the reserve without wearing chest waders. Unless we get a very dry March, which often happens, conditions look set to stay awkward until at least April, which seems an awful long way away!

Looking back through the year, it's certainly been one of extremes as far as conditions have been concerned.   We began 2012 in the middle of a winter drought and despite a few days of snow cover, it remained dry until the end of the winter. Indeed, by the end of March all the ditches, fleets and rills on the reserve were either dry or containing just a few inches of water and it did not bode well for the breeding season that was just beginning. However, as we now know, things changed dramatically during April and we quickly went from one extreme to the other, during April and May it not only stayed cold but it got wetter and wetter. The water courses quickly re-filled to their normal levels but more importantly, as the vegetation began to grow it stayed both wet and cold for long periods of time and with little sun to dry and warm them, the chicks of ground-nesting birds began to succumb to the cold. Birds such as Lapwings, Redshanks and even Skylarks, struggled to keep their chicks not only dry and warm but supplied with the few insects that there were about. Three pairs of Marsh Harriers nesting in rape nearby all saw their chicks succumb as the weight of the wet foliage saw the plants collapse over the nests, making access difficult.
Eventually our counts for The Swale NNR showed just 26 breeding pairs of Lapwings (a 42% drop on 2011) and only c. 4 chicks fledged. Redshanks also fledged very few chicks and even our resident pair of Barn Owls had their chicks die while still in the nest, presumably due to the parents finding it difficult to hunt for food in constantly wet vegetation.

It was quite frankly a disaster of a breeding season all round, borne out as we went into June, by suggestions that it was the wettest summer on record. That for me, was also a bit of an extreme statement, or it was where Sheppey was concerned, because as June progressed into July and August and we did eventually get some warm and dry weather, the reserve began to quickly dry out again. It certainly wasn't the kind of blistering weather that I would of liked but the reserve continued to dry out and lo and behold, by September we were back to near drought conditions - quite incredible, no water, no wildfowl and few waders! The continuing statements in the papers of how it had been the wettest summer on record all seemed a bit daft as we looked at parched rills and low ditch levels again.
And now, just to complete this year's mad merry-go-round of weather extremes, we are approaching flood levels again across the reserve, could we possibly fit in sweltering temperatures in the two weeks that are left - I somehow doubt that.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Harrier Roost Counts

Arriving on the seawall yesterday afternoon at 3.15, ready to carry out this winter's 3rd Harrier Roost Count, this was the scene that greeted me. The saltings were part covered by a high tide of around 6.0 metres in height. The water gradually receded, as did the light, but it had the effect of deterring any Hen Harriers coming into their traditional roost site on the saltings down towards Shellness Hamlet.
I was also surprised to watch a lone wildfowler and his dog make their way along the seawall later than usual and somehow find a way to get out to the seaward edge of the saltings, without disappearing down any of the flooded rills. The tide was ebbing fast as he positioned himself out there and large parties of Wigeon, Mallard, Shelduck and Brent Geese were drifting past on the fast moving tide, fortunately well out of his range, he could only watch them pass by.
It was indeed one of those late winter afternoons when a high tide one side of the seawall and a well flooded reserve the other side, combined to make very attractive conditions for a wide range of birds, in large numbers. Out on The Swale were some largish flocks of the birds mentioned above, all drifting with the tide and they all seemed to be eventually funneling into the bay created by the shell spit of Shellness Point, which itself had a reduced area due to the height of the tide. On the Point itself, the daily high-tide roost of waders displaced by the tide was well packed with large numbers of Oystercatchers, Dunlin, Knot, etc. and at regular intervals these would all rise into the air and swarm around like distant mosquitoes above a pond, well I was a mile away!
The flooded conditions on the reserve were just as productive and there was a mixed flock of c.500 Brent Geese and 40 Greylag Geese, there were Redshanks, Curlews, Herring and Black-headed Gulls, Mallard, Teal, a couple of Water Rails squealing in the Delph reed beds, Skylarks, Mipits, Reed Buntings, a Sparrowhawk and finally, two Bearded Tits on the reed tops. It was a noisy and scenic winter's dusk and by 4.00, as the light faded fast, the first of three single ring-tail Hen Harriers made it's way along the saltings towards Shellness where it dropped into a raised section of vegetation. It was soon followed by the other two harriers but just as they were about to drop down the wildfowler discharged three rapid shots at what seemed to be an empty sky. He repeated that shortly after and I can only assume that he was trying to scare up the wildfowl that were passing by on the tide with the hope some would pass over him. Unfortunately all it did was to twice startle and scare up the harriers and as I left for home they were still slowly circling round.
All that was left then was the trudge back across the reserve through much surface flood water and areas of clinging mud churned up by the feet of the cows and sheep. It's tiresome hard work in the daylight but in near darkness, trying to avoid the deepest of these areas is quite daunting and I eventually arrived back at the car both wet and wanged out, with two Jack Russells looking very similar - the joys of volunteering for surveys!

So, in the end my count for the evening was just the three Hen Harriers, but along one section of Capel Fleet on Harty 32 Marsh Harriers went into to roost in reed beds, with only one being a male bird. Elsewhere, at a Kemsley reed bed, yet another 32 Marsh Harriers roosted and there 5 were males among those. More counts have yet to be declared but I would expect another 40-50 Marsh Harriers from another Harty site so it all looks good, for Marsh Harriers at least.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Scarecrows and Frost

Four weeks ago the field above was green and lush with 3in high winter corn. Two weeks ago a flock of 600-800 Brent Geese found it and spent every day then after, eating the green leaves and gradually mowing their way across it from one end to the other. They have left the corn no higher than the soil it is growing from and although with mild weather it will almost certainly recover, it will be some weeks behind where it should be. Somewhat "after the horse has bolted", the farmer has now put a couple of scarecrows and a gas gun into the field and since then the Brents have not returned, but I think that's more a case of nothing left to eat than being scared off.
The extent of lost corn foliage is quite great and its easy to see why farmers eventually lose their patience with the geese and apply for licenses to begin shooting them, although the license issue is greatly flawed.

After a night of severe frost and freezing fog here on Sheppey, this morning after the fog cleared, turned out to be quite scenic with blue skies and sunshine lighting up the hoar frost covering every bush and tree. Here below you can see the frosted hedgerow along the Harty Road, which incidentally, was packed with Fieldfares and Redwings as I drove past.

The concrete track running down to the reserve from Elliotts Farm looked equally as impressive.

On the reserve itself this morning, I never saw that much because shortly after I got there the mist rolled in really thickly again and stayed like that for an hour, before disappearing just as quickly. At first it was quite weird because I had sunshine in front of me and closing in fast behind was a thick wall of mist. It was a bit like a film I saw one time with Jamie Lee Curtis in it, called "The Fog".

Any way, as I say, the mist cleared, the sun re-appeared and I couldn't resist this second photo of another one of the neighbouring scarecrows, this one looking quite ghostly as it stood there.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Sunny and Serene

After a week of rain, cold winds and cloudy conditions, what a joy it was to be on the reserve this morning. The ground white with frost, clear blue skies and the sun hitting me in the face as I drove down to the barn, it was fantastic.

 Even the flooded areas looked better with a blue sky reflected in them, they weren't any less hard to negotiate but they looked better. The Delph Fleet alongside the seawall (below) had barely a ripple on it and Bearded Tits "pinged" as they made their way along the reed tops.

The whole area had a real feel of warming sun and serenity about it and even the cows seemed to be grazing quieter - mmm, think I'm getting silly now.

One thing was for sure, with the ground made firmer by the frost for a while, I was able to forsake the 'orrible wellies and wear my walking boots for a change, so much more comfortable for the old arthritic feet. So by picking a route that avoided the worst of the deep water, deep mud and fresh cow shit, I had a really enjoyable walk round. (Reading one local blog this week where the guy's patch is mostly woodland and hedgerows, I was amused to see him saying how depressing it was because the ground had puddles and it was squelchy. (Try a day on the North Kent marshes at the moment you poor darling and you'll find out what proper squelchy is!)

Anyway it all began really well because the first birds that I clapped eyes on were six Brent Geese feeding in winter corn alongside the reserve and one of them was my first ever Black Brant, which considering I saw my first ever Pale-breasted Brant yesterday, quite made the week. (I came over all Twitchery then but hopefully it'll soon pass).
The next thing that quickly became apparent was that at long last birds are beginning to move in and utilize what we've painstakingly spread out before them - lots of water, lots of boggy ground, even some fly-covered cow pats, nothing like it for wildfowl and waders! They were all mostly in and alongside the "S Bend Ditch", where a grazing field was part flooded, but with the sun behind them I was mostly looking at several hundred dark shapes. But my cunning plan of simply walking the long way round behind them worked, well cunning except for the fact that I stood in a cow hoof print full of water and had liquid mud squelch all the way up a trouser leg to my crutch.

But anyway, apart from being wet I was now able to identify all the birds in that one field and flooded Ditch. It amounted to c.500 Lapwing, 200 Brent Geese, 120 Teal, 70 Mallard, 8 Snipe, 12 Mute Swan. Best of all though was the fact that what at first I assumed to be simply c.20 Greylag Geese grazing, turned out to be 12 Greylags and my first 10 White-fronted Geese of the winter, which promptly took flight. Once again I had to rub the old hanky across the brow as those feelings of being Twitchy rose to the surface again.
That was pretty much all the excitement for the day, the rest of the walk round was spent enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun, mulling over the poetic things I was gonna write on my blog when I got home, and looking at the current Wood Pigeon spectacle. The farm fields between the reserve and Shellness Hamlet, a huge acreage, still retain most of the maize crop that was sown earlier this year. A brief attempt to harvest the crop a couple of weeks ago but it quickly became evident that the ground was too wet to take the weight of the combine harvester and so the crop has been pretty much abandoned. This has seen many thousands of the maize cobs dropping their corn onto the ground below, with the result that we seem to have every Wood Pigeon in Kent out there feeding in the fields. The flock has gradually built up as pigeon-post gets around and it currently stands at around 3,000 birds, a spectacular sight every time they take flight as something disturbs them.
Yesterday that disturbance came in the form of the weekly farmland game shoot, which decided that the first drive should be through the maize fields at the rather opportune and easy targets of several thousand massed pigeons. For a brief spell the shooters did spectacularly well as the birds kept getting up in front of them and I imagine much pigeon pie will be eaten this weekend.

So with a bit of luck, we'll get a nice hard frost again tonight and I'll get out at first light tomorrow morning and get some nice views of a big, orange sun, climbing up above Seasalter as dawn breaks.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere and yellow fungi.

Well, as is to be expected after the rain of the last week, the reserve is now starting to flood up quite well now, although we still have some way to go before we reach the levels, or should I say depths, of the 2008/9 winter. The view above greeted me today as I pulled up to park at the reserve barn, entry on to the grazing marsh now requires the wearing of wellie boots. The ditch either side of the gate is fed by all the water draining off the farmland alongside and has now flooded across the gateway. It's bad enough having to wear wellies but when you only have short legs like the dogs its all a bit much and although Midge was having second thoughts, Ellie showed us how to do it.

However we all got through OK and the view below shows that the water is now creeping back up the track to the front of the barn. Although the water near to the barn is only a few inches deep at the moment I was amazed as I approached it, to see minnows zipping about in it, that far away from the ditch proper.

Turning 180 degrees to begin walking round the reserve, the photo below shows what faced us (the straight lines in the middle are the track). You can just make out the white shapes of the sheep in the distance on ground that is only slightly higher and in the 2008/9 winter even that was all under water, but we're getting there.

This ditch is just behind the sheep above and runs across to the sea wall. As you can see it has now begun to flood out onto the grazing marsh. Incidentally, the bund to the left-hand side of it is where the Desert Wheatear was seen a couple of weeks ago, its obvious why it never hung around!

Getting across that ditch entailed going through this raised but still flooded gateway, which my wellies only just cleared in the middle. Midge seems to be having second thoughts, the way back looks far more appealing!

Below is the start of the "S Bend Ditch", which you can see has flooded outwards in all directions. This time last year, right through until this April, that ditch, or Stone Fleet to give its proper name, was bone dry. If previous years are anything to go by, that gateway and track will now be inaccessible until at least May next year. Oddly enough though, and despite a lengthy walk round, expectations of seeing large numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers on the waterlogged grazing fields, came to nothing. Clearly with the whole of Harty equally waterlogged the birds are spoilt for choice but one would of expected far larger numbers than the few dozens that we are currently experiencing. A few curlews fed in the grass while the tide was high and around 200 Brent Geese grazed alongside some Mute Swans in a flooded section but really, a dozen newly arrived Gadwall were the best thing on offer apart from Hen and Marsh Harriers.

Lastly, you might recall my photo of a bright purple fungus a few weeks ago, well today on the sea wall I found this bright orangey-yellow one, which remains unidentified as yet.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Childhood Natural History in the 1950's

The comments I made about twitchers in my last post, which often see me classified as odd by that particular type of some-time birdwatchers, have evolved I suppose, as a result of several meetings with some of them over many years. Perhaps I have just been unfortunate in coming across the odd bad apples each time but on the whole I have always found them an arrogant and cliquey bunch of people who often abandon established codes of practice in their determination to see what somebody else has found for them.
I suppose it also comes from a degree of contempt for the fact that it is easy these days to be an expert naturalist simply from the comfort of an armchair - want to always know where the latest uncommon/rare birds are, don't find them yourself, buy a Pager - want to know what that bird looks like, study it in depth on the internet - buy telescopes, binoculars and long-range cameras - buy good bird books - watch how best to go about your hobby on TV. The one thing missing from that long list of easy and convenient steps to being a modern day successful birdwatcher are the countless years of learning fieldcraft in all weathers and every season. When I look at the twitcher, rushing along the seawall, who has just zipped out from the comfort of home to answer the call of a pager, I do wonder at just what time and experience that they actually put into finding any kind of bird life for themselves, or am I simply bleating away like many old codgers, with the "you've never had it so good or easy" mantra.

As a child born in 1947, who spent his formative years growing up through the 1950's in very basic living conditions, with no electricity and just one cold water tap in the whole house, our only form of communication with the outside world was by radio. That radio was powered by an accumalator, of the type seen below, which was bigger and heavier than it looks. It was a square glass container full of acid, that often, us kids would have to lug round to the local radio shop, or back-yard supplier each week to swap for a re-charged one. Not something a child would be allowed to do today but like everything else in those times, you learned by experiencing it rather than reading about it.

I don't recall learning much at all about wildlife or nature from the radio and with ownership of bird books, etc. almost unheard of, or they were in my circle of friends, the only place to find out anything was by borrowing books from the public library. Imagine a modern day birdwatcher having nothing else but the Observers books of Birds or Birds Eggs to learn from and not even a pair of binoculars, would their interest still be there, would their blogs have any content?
What many of us old'ns now know, was learnt from many, many hours as a child wandering fields, hedgerows and marshes armed with nothing but a simple determination to learn everything one could about the countryside around you. Whatever you learned, it was done the hard way - trees were climbed, bushes and ditches were fell in, eggs collected and specimens brought home. I lost count of the number of times that I brought home caterpillars or butterflies in a jar and then had to traipse down to the library and borrow a book, often with only black and white illustrations, before I could try to identify them. Many a library book got returned with muddy pages inside where I had taken it out into the field with me.
For far too many years, until well into my 20's when I bought my first pair of cheap RSPB binoculars, I could only identify birds by eyesight alone. But those years weren't wasted years, they gave you experience in being able to identify birds by their calls and their wing and flight movements, rather than simply sticking a telescope on them. You still got joy from discovering, by actually looking on your own, the simple things, such as Song Thrushes line their nests with mud but that Blackbirds go on to cover the mud in their nests with hay, etc. You still got great enjoyment from spending a whole day among common wildlife and learning its habits, rather than the need to find that rarer specimen. How many times do bloggers these days reel off a long list of ordinary birds seen each day and then complain that there's not much about or long for something "decent" to come by. Why does it only have to be something rare these days to create enjoyment or excitement.
Above all, I recall, it was a time when nature still adhered to four clearly defined seasons, when wildlife still worked to those seasons by clockwork and by getting out and experiencing those seasons you learned more than you ever could from the internet.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Twitching and Harrier Roost Counts

The Sunday just gone saw this winter's second Harrier Roost Count (HRC) taking place at various parts of Kent. If we're fortunate the weather is as it was on Sunday afternoon, clear blue skies, sunshine and no wind, although it got a tad cold once the sun had set, as it was below, behind Harty Church.

On my way out to the reserve at 15.15, I briefly stopped off at the Raptor Viewing Mound along the Harty Road, where around fourteen birdwatchers were enjoying the good weather. Several harriers had already been seen from there, including both male and female Hen Harriers, and so with the Shellness saltings in front of the Swale NNR, the favourite Hen Harrier roost site, I had high expectations for my count. I was also advised/warned, that a twitch had been going on along the reserve's seawall during the afternoon due to the appearance of a male Desert Wheatear - gawd, twitchers!
Parking up at the reserve barn and letting the dogs out of the car, I could see the group of twitchers standing on the seawall, right where I normally do the HRC but fortunately there were only half a dozen, others were already making their way back along the seawall. So the dogs and I set off across the marsh towards the seawall, bathed in the orange glow of the sun, now low in the sky, and rejoicing in the beauty of such a late afternoon.
Walking up to the group it was obvious where the bird was, by the direction that their scopes were pointing and I asked if they were looking at the Desert Wheatear. Fortunately one of the group could be bothered to reply, the others looked at me as though I was the village idiot, and continued talking among themselves - my lowly opinion of twitchers became even more entrenched! Anyway, the guy who did reply let me have a look at the bird through his scope, yes Desert Wheatear and five seconds later it was history. I wondered how far and how long these guys had travelled and rushed to spend such a short time making a tick and so asked the one who was being friendly, to my surprise he said he came from California! No, he hadn't jetted over at the speed at light at the beep of his pager, he currently now lives in Edenbridge but I guess that's far enough to come on a whim. We walked a short distance away from the other group and he carried on along the seawall home while I began looking for Harriers that might be coming into roost on the saltings, as the light was ebbing fast. As I did so, the remaining group began walking past and I made a second attempt at conversation by asking if they had far to go for home and all I got was a curt "no" as they all trundled past in silence - methinks I'll stick at being the village idiot and leave the twitching to those that feel that they know better!
By now it was getting colder and darker and yet still no harriers had appeared to roost, quite surprising as I'd seen two male and single female Hen Harriers regularly over the last few weeks on the reserve. Finally in the increasing gloom, I did spot a pair of Marsh Harriers drop into the reed beds alongside the seawall and then, briefly, in swept a female Hen Harrier. However, with a high tide part flooding some of the saltings, it clearly wasn't to her liking and she eventually made her way across the reserve and dropped into a reed bed by the barn, which is unusual.  
So, my count of just three harriers was pretty poor for mid-November but several other roosts were being counted on Sheppey and the two whose counts I've already seen had credible numbers, all in reed beds - one on Harty had 24 Marsh Harriers and one from Elmley had 14 Marsh Harriers and 2,500 Starlings.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Martha Dodd - Elmley's Longest Resident?

A couple of weeks ago, a local historian, G. Turner, kindly sent me some photographs in response to my previous blog posting re. Seaview Cottages at Elmley. Among them was a copy of a newspaper picture (above), from c.1938 showing who I presumed to be Mrs. Martha Dodd, receiving post from a postman at Elmley. I knew that the Dodd family had lived on Elmley and although they were not related to me in any way, I was intrigued that she appeared to have lived on Elmley continuously for at least 87 years and I  decided to see what I could find out about her.

Martha was born in a cottage on the Elmley marshes in 1851. Her parents were William and Elizabeth Flood and she was the last and youngest of their eight children. Her father was born across The Swale at Lynsted and her mother at Ospringe and by the time of her birth in 1851 her parents had been living at Elmley since 1838, with William employed there as a shepherd.
Looking at the wide expanse of Elmley today it would be easily to imagine that, all those years ago, Martha had been born into a pretty bleak landscape, but that wasn't necessarily the case. Sure the conditions in the cottages were very basic but with numerous cottages dotted around the marshes and a row of cottages in Kingshill farmyard itself, plus a church nearby, there was a modicum of social life. Between 1857 and 1987 the whole of Elmley was owned by the Oxford University Chest and the tenancy quite often changed hands. When the tenancy of the whole of Elmley was advertised in the Kent Gazette in 1853, two years after Martha's birth, listed alongside the various buildings, grazing marshes, etc, was a brickworks. These works, covering some 25 acres alongside The Swale, included "an inexhaustible supply of brick earth, newly built cottages, drying sheds and kilns." It seems that the brick works began life in the late 1840's and only lasted for around ten years, because in c.1860 a cement producing factory was built on the site. Included in the same advertisment was the Ferry House pub and Ferryman's cottage on the Murston side of Elmley Ferry, this 10 acre site also belonged to the Elmley estate.

 Anyway, despite the employment offered by this nearby industry, Martha's father remained working as a shepherd and by 1861 the family were found to be living at Rose Cottages on the flat marsh north of Kingshill Farm. By this time, two of Martha's brothers were also employed, one as a farm labourer and the other as a Cooper. A 1946 sketch of the buildings show a largish L-shaped cottage close to a second building with cattle stalls below and rooms above. Today, only the second building remains.
A second family of three, the Rutlands, are also shown as living at the cottages at the same time but whether they all shared the larger cottage or were split between the two buildings is not indicated.

In 1868, the 17yr old Martha married 25yr old shepherd James Dodd. He and his family were living in a cottage elsewhere on Elmley after moving from Little Bells Farm, near Eastchurch, some years before. That's pretty much how it was in those days, it was a pretty solitary life and unless you was lucky, you simply married somebody who lived close by, had children and spent a life mirroring that of your parents before you. The harsh facts of this were obviously clear to Martha just three years later in 1871 when she was just 20 yrs of age. Both she and James were living in an un-named cottage on Elmley, she already had a 1yr old daughter Ann and they were sharing the cottage with three of her husband's relatives, his 60yr old grandmother, his 18yr old sister and a 14yr old nephew.

By 1881 the Turkey Cement Works down by The Swale were in full flow and even employing some people from off of Sheppey - new blood was beginning to appear on Elmley!. As a result, several short terraces of houses had been built, also one or two larger houses and there was even a pub-come shop, "The Globe" - a small community was forming. Four years later in 1885, a new school was also built alongside the church, a school mistress employed and an average attendance of 49 children attended.
In the 1881 Census Martha and James were recorded as now living in that community, in one of the Jobs Hole Cottages, (they later became Seaview Cottages), at No.4. This move very likely came about becase James had changed jobs, he was now working as a second Wallman and it was custom in the district that regular Wallmen were allowed the use of a cottage and a certain quantity of coals, with their wages fixed on that basis. It was an important job because with high tides regularly occurring in The Swale, as they still do, upkeep of the sea walls was vital in order to prevent the marsh and its buildings from becoming flooded. By that time as well, they were sharing their cottage with their now five children - Harriet b.1872, Esther b.1873, Alfred J. b.1875, Jane E. b.1877 and Alice E. b.1880. Curiously, there was no mention of their first-born, Ann, who would of been 11 that year, had she died? Fortunately as well, the relatives were gone, Martha would of been glad of the room, the cottages were always pretty cramped affairs in those days.

Jumping forward to 1891, the cement works was at the busiest point in it's short history and was employing labourers from as far away as Birmingham. James and Martha were still living in the same cottage and James was still employed as a Wallman. Their 19 year old daughter Harriet was not recorded as living there however and had probably married or was working away somewhere, whilst 16 year old son Alfred was working as a labourer in the cement works. However the loss of Harriet from the household hadn't resulted in anymore room in the cottage, or any less work for Martha, for they now had three lodgers, all bargees working out of the cements work's small dock.
Martha was now 40 years of age and presumably life wasn't getting much easier, a husband, four children and now three lodgers all packed into the one cottage. Its easy to speculate, despite her age, whether Martha had yet ever been anywhere else away from Elmley.
The likes of Sheerness, Minster or Eastchurch would of all involved long walks along rough footpaths across fields and marshes, or possibly by horse and cart. Presumably the shortest route would of been via the Elmley Ferry, just half a mile away and a walk into Murston or Sittingbourne. Whichever route was taken would probably involve the best part of a day out and it would be easy not to bother, providing enough food could be achieved from their garden and the surrounding estate. Water was obtained from a wind pump close to the cottages and was stored in iron bound water casks outside the cottages. Likewise, coal was provided as part of their employment agreement, I wonder how it got there, was it brought there by a coalman on a horse and cart, or by other means. And finally to add to their problems, an inventory of all the buildings on Elmley that year noted that in respect of Seaview Cottages, "a good deal of work was necessary...not only to cottage occupied by Dodd but to the other three, for the labour of which the tenant is no doubt responsible".

1901 brought about the second year of a new century and with it came a rapid drop in Elmley's population figures. The cement works had closed in 1900 and with the urgent need to find other work, a lot of the community there had begun to drift away, with many ending up in London. The population figures for Elmley around that time demonstrate what I mean: in 1891 - 201, 1907 - 146, 1911 - 50. Children attending the Elmley schoolhouse had also dropped, with average attendances in 1907 of only 14 children.
For Martha and James, little had changed, they were still at No.4 Seaview Cottages, although James had now reverted back to a job as an Agricultural Labourer (farmhand) and the children had all left home. With the girls presumably getting married and therefore changing their surnames it has not been possible to track their whereabouts, except the youngest. 23yr old Alice was now working as a servant for an old lady in Dover. As for Alfred, well with the demise of the cement works he had obviously joined the exodus to London and in the autumn of 1900 had married a wife called Jane and was living in Greenwich and working in the local gas works there.

1911 is the last year that census returns are currently available on line and they once again show Martha and James still living on Elmley and although it isn't recorded, presumably still at Seaview Cottages. Martha was now 60 and poor old James 68 and still working as a farm labourer there. Interestingly, that was the first census where the householder was responsible for completing his/her own entry. In the relevant sections James has recorded that he and Martha had 7 children born alive, 6 were still alive in 1911 and one had died. That leaves a slight mystery in that I have only seen six children recorded as being born to the couple, perhaps James made a mistake with his entry. Of the children, once again only Alfred is traceable, still living in Greenwich, still working in the gas works and now with a 5yr old daughter.

And so, after that Martha's story goes cold, until that is, she re-appeared in a local paper in c.1938, pictured taking her post from the postman, who would of still come across from the mainland via the Elmley ferry. (I have another photo of the very same postman handing mail to a young Gransden actually at the ferry) The newspaper caption also indicates that she was living a few miles away from Kingshill Farm itself and so I'd be surprised if she hadn't spent all those intervening years still at Seaview Cottages - paperwork suggests that the cottages were still there as late as 1941. Was she living on her own when the photo was taken, I should think so, although it has not been possible to find an actual date of death for James.
Martha's is an incredible story, how amazing it would of been to be able to talk to her and compile all those memories into a real-life record of how Elmley had once been. It must of been so hard for her, well into her 80's, with the church and the schoolhouse falling into dis-repair and nothing but the ghosts of the brickfields community all around her.

Sometime between 1938 and her death in 1942, Martha was taken away from Elmley and removed to Farnborough Hospital in Kent where she died in Feb. 1942. None of her current family know the reason why she was hospitalised where she was, or what her illness was, but after her death she was brought back to Sheppey and buried at Queenborough Churchyard.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

How things change

 It was a very pleasant drive out to the reserve this morning along the Harty Road. The widespread overnight frost had thawed to leave the fields coated in a heavy dew, a slight mist was dispersing, the skies were unbroken blue and sunny and a flock of c.70 Fieldfare flew past overhead. The one thing that you can't miss now is the degree of visible water, Capel Fleet looks well full and even out in the winter wheat fields there are numerous areas of standing water, which will drown out the countless slugs if nothing else.
Arriving at the reserve it is also easy to see the results of the latest rainfall on Sunday morning, the ditch by the barn has now overflowed across the track to join the two sides into one. In March, after last winter's drought, this ditch was only a few inches deep, that'll certainly not be the case next March. Instead, with above average rainfall forecast for this winter, we'll possibly end up as we did 3-4 years ago, with 70% of the grazing marsh either water-logged or under water. It makes it very difficult to walk around the place but normally encourages the import of many thousands of waders and wildfowl, something we badly need at the moment.

Moving round to the "S Bend Ditch", the subject of numerous photos in blogs by me as I've charted its bone dry progress through two dry winters, it's also pleasing to be able to record that is now full and over-flowing, as you can see below.

 In fact it is so over-flowing that at one end it has completely flooded the access track and gate, putting them out of use.

The only thing missing now are the birds that should be enjoying these conditions. As I mentioned earlier, we would normally expect to see the waterlogged grazing meadows attracting large flocks of waders and wildfowl, but to date Golden Plovers aren't there at all and even the Lapwings have been slow to appear, only averaging a 100+ most days. It was not total doom and gloom this morning though, the weather conditions if nothing else, made it a real pleasure to be there and even the Mallard numbers had risen to the heady heights of c.100 birds this morning.
Some of the other birds that I saw were a Buzzard, several Marsh Harriers, a ring-tail Hen Harrier, Bearded Tits, a Water Rail, a mixed flock of c.80 Goldfinch, Linnet and Greenfinch - but best of all was a Whinchat atop an Elderberry bush, a late bird.

The huge acreage of maize both alongside the Shellness track and various other parts of Harty, now look pretty much like a lost cause. The farmer would normally expected to have combined it by now, shredding the whole plants and using the product for cattle feed, but the wet weather has made much of the ground to wet and soft for heavy plant now and in the meantime the crop has lost most of its goodness. I'm still surprised to find that people, on seeing the plants covered in large cobs of corn, mistake it for the sweet corn that they buy in the shops and think about taking some home, but its a hard and poorly flavoured thing.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Old Age

Reading some of the local birding blogs these days I often get sharp reminders of how far I'm getting left behind by modern bird watching methods, i.e a telescope, binoculars and a note-pad are still the extent of my bird watching tools.
I've stood next to people whose pockets bleeped every five minutes as their pagers announced almost every bird rarer than a sparrow as it was seen in Kent - they must live permanently frustrated lives, being told but not being able to get there. So I haven't considered a pager, prefering not to sound like a Dalek as I go about my daily business.

Photography is another branch of bird watching that seems to have developed into a race to outdo each other with better and better and closer and closer photographs. Here, in order to guarantee praise sometimes, the blogger will sometimes post what to the ordinary person is a quite superb photo, but add the comment "its a bit blurred" or "a bit dark", so that we comment "oh no, it looks fantastic".  In their frustrations to get rare bird photos, because they have never seen one, or someone else might photograph it first, they sometimes admit on a blog that they resorted to good old fashioned "bush-bashing". This is the old-fashioned  method of sending someone into the bushes to deliberately scare out a secretive bird that is not playing ball - it might not do the bird much good but it sure helps promote one in the photography stakes. But it now appears that some people have modernized that technique, although even here I might be late on the scene.

I was reading a blog this morning whereby a rarish bird was known to be in some reed beds but had still to be seen by some bird watchers desperate to see it. No probs. there, out with the mobile phone, play the bird's call notes and hey presto, out pops the bird for all to see! Clearly that's where us archaic souls who regularly patrol The Swale NNR are going wrong when we keep recording a lack of birds. I wonder, should we be standing on the reserve playing Wigeon and Teal sounds on our mobiles, will it bring in those birds we aren't seeing.
But if it doesn't, simple, blame it on a poor signal!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Good Life

First off, crossing the reserve on Saturday morning I came across a tiny clump of this strikingly purple fungus. In 26 years on the reserve I've never seen it before and so I assume that it is a new arrival - but what is it, any ideas anyone, it's certainly quite spectacular.

October this year has been a really good month, we started it suffering with a drought on the reserve and are ending it with all the ditches, rills and scrapes nicely full, a sight not seen for several years. On the whole the temperatures have also been fairly warm as well and the combination of the two has seen everything growing away quite nicely and most of Harty looks quite superb at the moment. A couple of weeks ago, as I carried out the first Harrier Roost Count, I watched a tractor on the farmland alongside drilling winter wheat until well after dark. That same field today is fast turning green as the wheat shoots hastily force their way upwards before the first frosts arrive.
On a warm and sunny day such as today, everywhere looks and feels so good, both next year's rape and wheat crops are growing at a rate of knots and the reserve's cattle have an infinite supply of fresh grass on which to graze. This year as well, we've had quantities of mushrooms in the fields the like I haven't seen for some years, and so I've picked and eaten them, I've collected sloes and made sloe gin and I've picked and scattered rose hips and hawthorn haws along the seawall in the hope of starting off more bushes. We've has Jays on the farmland alongside the reserve, a rare treat, odd winter thrushes are starting to appear and very gradually the wildfowl are starting to increase in numbers. Its a good life on the reserve at the moment and hopefully November, with hopefully the addition of a few hard frosts, will continue in the same vein and then before we know it, the New Year and the dreams and hopes for 2013 will be apon us - can't wait!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Foggy Perambulations

Over Saturday night and throughout Sunday, we had virtually 24 hours of non-stop rain of varying degrees of intensity. As a result I gave the reserve a miss yesterday, with seven days a week always available to me I can't see the point of getting soaked for the sake of it.
This morning I got up to thick fog and drizzle and a forecast that suggested it would be stuck like that for three days unchanged, which, put politely, was a tad depressing. But neither I nor the two dogs were to be denied a walk for a second day running and so off we set for the reserve, arriving as you can see above, to a view across the reserve that clearly indicated that birdwatching was out of the window, or to be more accurate, even bird seeing! Visibility at best was a 100 yds and for a lot of the time, 50yds, coupled with regular bouts of light drizzle, although funnily enough, or perhaps perversely, I quite like walking round the marsh in the fog. It also helps of course, if you can find your way round it without getting lost, as I'm confident I can after 26 years of walking the reserve in all weathers. However there were three Chiffchaffs calling in the willows alongside the gate and so bird identification by calls alone was going to a fun challenge for my birding knowledge today.

So off we set and almost immediately it was clear that yesterday's rain had had an enormous impact on the reserve, with some ditches almost overflowing and in the grazing marsh itself, large areas of standing water that wasn't always obvious in the longer grass until you started splashing through it. The reserve is now experiencing water levels that we wouldn't normally expect to see until around January and I imagine on the next sunny day it is going to look quite fantastic. A Wheatear was the next bird recorded and this time seen, as it perched on a gate post just ahead of me, will this be the last of this year I wondered as it disappeared into the gloom. Then the bird calls began to sound proper, I could hear Greylag Geese and Mallard somewhere to my right, a curlew passed somewhere overhead, leaving it's eirie call behind, Lapwings "peewitted" in the fog and I was reminded of an event in The Wind in the Willows. The part where one cold winter's afternoon the Mole set off into The Wild Wood and as the darkness set in he could hear and sense the scampering of rabbits and weasels close by and threatening him, but he never saw them. OK, I wasn't scared from hearing a few bird calls but the thick fog can have that sort of spooky feel about it, especially as sounds carry over longer distances and can seem nearer to you than they actually are.
The cattle had turned some of the muddy areas into very muddy areas and poor old mini-legged Ellie soon had the appearance of a fast moving clod of mud with white bits on top - so different to the longer-legged Midge who simply ambled through such morass without even getting her belly dirty, a bit Lady and the Tramp like.
The dark shape of a hawthorn bush began to take shape in the fog and from its top a Buzzard slowly flapped away from me, soon lost in the gloom as it headed across one of the arable fields. Last week I watched a tractor sowing wheat in that same field so it won't be long before it begins to turn green as the first fresh shoots begin to break free of the soil, encouraged by the wet, mild conditions. Those same conditions had also encouraged the growth of the field mushrooms and in just one small field alone I counted 150+ of them, loads of white dots growing in circles, in lines, or just dotted about. Many years ago when my Sunday morning marsh walks were followed by lunchtime pints in the local Workingman's Club,we used to fill up a bread basket with such a mushroom profusion and take it in the Club for everybody to help themselves to. It of course often saw the drinking of extra pints, supplied in gratitude, and a less than straight walk home.

We ambled on, be-jeweled spiders webs adorning just about every bit of vegetation that we passed, and came suddenly upon the small cattle herd, black shapes suddenly appearing from the fog and the drizzle. No matter what time of day or night that you visit they are rarely seem not eating, it must be a tad boring, a bit like us permanently eating just egg and chips for breakfast, dinner and tea, although I suppose we would get the choice of vinegar or tomato ketchup with it. I do recall that as a fussy eater as a young child, that many of  my dinners were egg and chips because I didn't like vegetables and such like, so I guess it can't be too bad. And that's how the walk in the fog went on, the fog got thicker, the drizzle got heavier, I got wetter and silly thoughts and recollections were pondered over, until at last, like some great ship appearing before us, the barn hove into view and it was time to just clamber into the car and disappear off home.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Autumn Fruits

It rained early this morning but by 8.00 it had been replaced by blue skies and sunshine and despite a moderate wind it was quite a mild day. I began the day with a visit to Elmley to pick the sloes that I needed for this winter's sloe gin. My usual supply from a hedge at Harty had already been harvested by somebody and so I had to look further afield, but the Elmley ones were plentiful and nicely softened and so a late winter walk will be warmed by the odd snifter of that when its ready.
A couple of weeks ago the reserve cattle and their calves were taken away to the stock yards, the calves for weaning and the parents for later auctioning. They've now been replaced by these Red Devon/Aberdeen Angus cross cattle which are apparently in-calf and will stay on the reserve until being taken away to the stock yards in the New Year in order to calve in sheltered conditions. Unlike this time last year when the reserve was already grazed out, this year there is plenty of grass for the 70 odd cattle that have arrived.

The reserve looks really quite splendid at the moment, its green and well grassed and the water levels are well up, as the Flood scrape shows in the picture above. Its just a real shame that such near perfect conditions aren't attracting any decent counts of waders or waterfowl. We carried out the monthly WEBS count on Monday afternoon and while the two guys counting the wader roosts at either end of the reserve had very good counts, my circuit round the main central part of the reserve, once again recorded another lowest monthly count. Likewise, the evening before saw me on the seawall till dark taking part in the first of this year's Harrier Roost counts, and I saw none at all, neither Marsh or Hen, although two other sites on Harty had good numbers of Marsh Harriers going into reed beds so all was not lost.

But as I've said before, its not all about birds and Ellie and Midge always find something to dig or sniff at, as you can see below, although this particular rabbit warren was empty to their frustration. Ellie was a year old recently - time flies, and looks to have grown to her full height now, although height seems the wrong word, I think Midge's toes are longer than Ellie's legs!
Also on that rabbit warren were several late flowering Ragwort plants, giving a bit of late colour and on one of them I was pleasantly surprised to find a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly both feeding and basking in the sun. After getting my knees wet several times trying to crawl close enough to photograph it, just to watch it fly off, I gave up and left it to it.
The lateness of the summer wildlife didn't end there either, as I walked past a couple of the ditches odd Marsh Frogs were still leaping into the water from the banks and some dragonflies still circled above. I guess we're right on the border-line now of summer and winter and it'll take just one sharp frost to tip the scales.

But until the frost does arrive we'll hopefully still get little feasts like these field mushrooms that have suddenly sprung up. Mushrooms with real flavour, that grow to make bacon and egg breakfasts taste so much better. Sloes for gin and mushrooms for breakfast - real autumn fruits.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Aha, we have water!

Wow, what a superb morning's weather on the reserve today, blue skies, very warm sun and no wind made it seem almost summery, it was a real joy to walk round out there.
That joy was heightened on seeing how much the water levels have increased since the overnight rain Friday into Saturday. The ditch above was half the width and two foot lower on Saturday morning but is now so full that it is flowing through a pipe under the track and re-filling a ditch alongside, as you can see below.

 The reason, thanks to all that rain, is that the neighbouring arable fields all slope towards the reserve and over the last three days all their water has been draining into the ditch above which is inside the reserve's boundary. Even better, this ditch then naturally flows from west to east and has been, and still is, taking all that water through those parts of the reserve that need it most, filling up side ditches and some rills (below), on its way.

 Even the "S bend ditch", about half a mile away (see below), has received this water and re-filled to the extent that it is over-flowing across a track alongside. It is the first October for several years that I can recall the "S bend ditch" having this amount of water in it and everything is looking really good for normal, if not wetter, levels of water on the reserve this winter. All we need now is the wetland birds to go with it, this morning's walk round the flat marsh produced just 20 Mallard, 8 Snipe,a Green Sandpiper and a couple of Herons from these wet areas.
Finches however seem to have had a good year and at present we are getting a flock of 150+ Linnets most days and this is often swollen by around 40-50 Greenfinches and the same amount of Goldfinches. Likewise Marsh Harriers seem to be showing wel lagain at the moment, I had six yesterday and five today, just a shame that the wetland birds don't like our wetland.

 One last item concerning the reserve this morning, is the fellow below. The reserve's grazier has utilized a quiet corner of the reserve as the winter quarters for his five bulls and this Aberdeen Angus looked in fine fettle as I passed by yesterday as he kept a wary eye on me. Perhaps surprisingly, I have no fear of passing close to and being in the same field as these bulls but if they had been five horses there would of been no way I'd of been in there, horses scare me greatly.

Whilst wandering round this morning on such an excellent morning for being out in the countryside, I mulled over the fact that over the last few days I have had a long chat with the farm next door's gamekeeper, a similar chat with a wildfowler on the seawall and even a brief chat with the Master of the fox hunt - but haven't seen or spoken to a single birdwatcher for some time. Perhaps those hunting types have a higher degree of optimism when looking for their quarry than birdwatchers and are prepared to put the time in. Perhaps its the early morning timescale or the fact that The Swale NNR just isn't fashionable in reserve terms these days.

One disappointing feature on the Harty farmland this autumn is the fact that the food strips round the arable fields have been ploughed in. I'm told that the farmer has come out of whatever scheme that it was that paid him to sow these strips each year with seed bearing plants that were attractive to finches and buntings. It'll be interesting to see if this has any effect on Corn Bunting numbers along the Harty Road, which in recent years in the winter has seen flocks of c.100+ birds feeding in these strips.  

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Hunt Goes On

I rained for thirteen hours overnight and didn't stop here on Sheppey until about 8.00 this morning. It was much needed in order to cancel out the drought of the last three months and I arrived at the reserve shortly after to immediately notice that ditches and rills were well full at last, perhaps we will get a normal wet winter this year, that'll be nice.
As I drove down the farm track and on to the reserve, I saw that there were several women on horse back in front of me and making their way further along the track, mmm, thinks I, could that be the fox hunt out again. That fact was confirmed as I got out of the car at the reserve barn, in the distance towards Shellness Hamlet I could here the baying of hounds and the huntsman's horn. Birdwatching and checking on the wildfowlers went out of the window as I decided to hurridly make my way round the reserve boundary towards the sound of the hunt. Meanwhile, as I went, a dozen or so women horse riders made their way along the farm track above me, accompanied by two quad bikes on which were terrier men with their terriers in cages on the back. Mmmm, clearly a signal of intent then, not simply exercising the hounds, the hounds chase the fox to ground, the terrier men clean up.
As I made my round the reserve the Hunt Master, resplendent on horse back in his red coat, was controlling the twenty odd fox hounds really well as they made their way across the farmland towards me (the photo above was spoiled by poor light). I picked up my Jack Russells, not wanting them to end up as hound meat, which was a good idea as the pack of hounds easily cleared the boundary fence and briefly surrounded me before moving off along the reserve. They turned out to be of little threat and I asked the Hunt Master to call them back onto the farmland, which with a couple of toots of his horn he quickly did. I then made the Hunt Master aware of the extent of the reserve and the fact that he had briefly also hunted across two RSPB fields without permission, he apologised and the hunt moved away to carry on doing what they have always done.

The fox hunt visits Harty far more regularly these days than it used to do and makes a mockery of those people that think that such hunting is banned - not really, and I'm surprised that those opposed to it are so easily fooled. Me, well while I'm not opposed to the control of foxes, its necessary to successfully manage a reserve for the benefit of ground nesting birds, I need to see them killed instantly with a single shot, rather than chased half way round the countryside first.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Seaview Cottages at Elmley, Sheppey

 The area at Elmley known as "The Brickfields", lies just to the right of the small and rather mis-named Elmley Hills, and opposite the old Kemsley Mill jetty. I'm not sure how it got the "Brickfields" nick-name because I can find no record of any brick making happening but there was certainly a factory making cement there. Details have now been supplied to me that there was indeed a brick making industry there in the 1850's with many of the workers living in temporary dwellings.
Details of this factory, The Turkey Cement Works, I have written about before in a previous blog and so I will repeat very little of that other than to say that despite it being there for the latter half of the 1880's and into the first decade of the 1900's, all that is left of it's existence today is a small dock and to the right of it, the flooring and foundations of the factory. Perhaps the nick-name comes from the odd sections of brick wall that are still to be found in the grass there, the few remains of the various cottages that housed many of the factory workers there.
To get to the Brickfields you turn right at Kingshill Farm car park and follow the track along the line of trees towards and past the now derelict Elmley schoolhouse. Its impossible to go past the old schoolhouse without standing there for a moment and trying to visualise both it in it's hey-day and Elmley church that once stood a few yards away. Together, the two small buildings must of stood proudly, defying the windswept isolation to serve the cement works community and the out-lying farm cottages, but now sadly confined to history and sepia photographs.

But on you must walk, following the track towards it's end, towards the rusting framework of an old wind pump and the tidal Swale. Down past hayfields and reed-fringed ditches, past the heaps of old ragstones and there you are, finally among the ghosts of an old community that no longer exists. Go the edge of The Swale and find the factory's old dock with the rusting keels of two old vessels and standing with your back to it, look towards Elmley Hills and the old wind pump that once supplied the community's fresh water. The hills were once twice as long as they are now, but were reduced in length by a half in order to supply clay for the repair of some of Sheppey's seawalls in the 1960's. So ignore the artificially flat area in front of it now and imagine it's slopes being a few hundred yards closer to the old dock. And close to its base were two small terraces of cottages, the Globe Inn and Seaview Cottages.
On a warm and sunny day with nothing but an odd rabbit scampering around on the flat turf, its so hard to imagine the community and its cottages, gardens, shrubs and trees ever being there. Its made even more difficult by the lack of photographs as evidence, but we recently had a small breakthrough. My girlfriend Di Gardner has been researching her family history and several of her relatives used to live on Sheppey in the early 1900's. One in particular, was an Edwin Williams, who despite being employed as a cowkeeper for many years on the Elmley farm, lived with his family at Seaview Cottages, pretty much on the banks of The Swale at the foot of Elmley Hills.
But as I said before no photographs appeared to exist until by chance a few weeks ago, after visiting the Brickfields, we called in to see somebody who we felt could help us and various documents started to appear. There was a hand drawn map that showed the siting of the various buildings at the Brickfields in c.1900, although frustratingly without naming them, a kind of estate agent's description of various of the named buildings through the years, including Seaview Cottages, and even better, some photocopies of photographs named as of Seaview Cottages. One in particular, the one featured above, was a copy of one that Di Gardner had the original of from her father's collection and which had been unidentified until then. There were also a couple more that showed people in the garden of the same building and it was an exciting match for Di, not only to potentialy see where her relatives once lived at Elmley, but as far as we know, they are the only ones of any of the cement works community buildings.

Looking at the old black and white photo above we were intrigued and so recently visited the site to at least try and identify where the building once stood, and came to the conclusion photographed below. The old hand-drawn map clearly showed a building of the same shape at that spot and the other clincher might possibly be a bit of wistful thinking. The extreme right of the original photo shows some shrubs lower down by the edge of The Swale and our visit found some old tamarix and willow shrubs in exactly the same place, could they be the originals and a hundred odd years old, who knows, but there doesn't seem any other reason for them being there.

Alongside the shrubs were the remains of what must of been a building's footings or walls and we stood alongside them trying to visualize the thoughts and feelings of those relatives in 1900-1910 in such a beautiful but isolated spot. To that end we also had the descriptions of the cottages given in the documentation that I mentioned earlier, see below.

These descriptions of Seaview Cottages range through various dates, from 1850 through to as late as 1942, but the one I particularly like is as follows:-
"c.1850 - a block of four cottages built about this date and each comprising: oven and boiler range in each living room and one ten gallon cast iron pot fixed in each wash-house, five bar doors and frame to each, and one stove in each house in the upstairs room; also a shop and cellar attached to one of the cottages and used as a retailing place for beer, not to be drunk on the premises, and containing two beer stands, 12 feet long and 1 foot-10ins wide, in the cellar. In the bakehouse is a 2 bushel oven and door, one kneading trough...and outside, four iron bound water caskets".

In c.1904 there is a Directory entry that shows the occupants as - "No.1 Edwin Williams - No.2 empty - No.3 John Caryer - No.4 James Dodd - Empty - Empty".

This documentation that has come to light goes on to make mention of and briefly describe many of the other buildings to be found around Elmley and is really interesting but at the same time leaves me with a slight uneasiness about the black and white photo actually being of Seaview Cottages. There was definitely a building on that spot on the hand-drawn map and the photo confirms that fact, and although it could of been split into several "cottages", it looks like a stand-alone house to me. Given that there were also two short terraces of cottages a hundred yards or so away and for me, the description above seems to be describing them, but I'll leave it to readers to make their own minds up.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Rain and Lanes

Above is the reserve this morning, rain to the south and blue skies to the north, a day when you find out if you can still sprint short distances, or in my case, hobble faster.
 The bit of rain that we've had in recent days has had no effect whatsoever on the reserve's current drought and no areas have re-filled as a result. Unfortunately it would take rain in the amounts being currently experienced by those in the North to make a significant difference, but that of course would bring problems of another type. If nothing else however, it has at least wettened the surface of the grazing meadows and hopefully it will encourage the grass to re-grow and green up before the first frosts set in.
Birds still remain in short supply, although I did have a singing Cettis Warbler in willows by the reserve barn as I wandered back, the first for around a year and the first Brent Geese of the winter have begun arriving in The Swale.

 Moving away from the reserve and into Minster, the photos above and below relate to one of two Community Woodlands that were planted around 10-15 years ago.

 They illustrate one of the benefits that can be gleaned from the massive housing developments that are swallowing huge tracts of virgin farmland on the Island at the moment. One development is the mini town that is being built opposite the Sheppey Rugby Club along the Lower Road, the other is at Chequers, on the high ground just past the Island's Water Tower. When both of these developments were proposed and put forward for planning permission, Swale Borough Council at the time fortunately had in their ranks a councillor responsible for Environmental issues who insisted that permission be granted only if some environmental benefit was felt by the community. As a result, the Council insisted that a quite large acreage at both sites had to be set aside and planted up as woodland, this was agreed, thousands of saplings were planted and the result is now two maturing woodlands containing mixed varieties of shrubs and trees. The undergrowth in these woods is allowed to grow long, with just set paths kept mown for public access and mammals, birds and butterflies are colonising the area with great success.

Because the woodland area above borders onto the lane below, it got me thinking about what few, old fashioned lanes that we still have on Sheppey, I could only think of two, or three at a stretch. The one below is Plough Lane, which runs from Eastchurch through to the Chequers Road at Minster, going past the Warden Road, Connetts and Garretts Farms on the way.

 This next one is Elm Lane, part of which that used to be called Stickfast Lane many years ago. Given that it used to be a mud cart track that sometimes flooded, perhaps that's the reason for the secondary name. This is a lovely old lane that runs between the now closed British Queen pub on the Chequers Road and Scocles Road, the one lane on Sheppey that probably looks little different to how it always did so. The section below also follows the bed of the old Sheppey Light Railway line, and was crossed at the corner half way along the lane by it.

The third remaining lane from my youth, is Oak Lane. This began on the opposite side of the main road from the British Queen and the end of Elm Lane and ran very narrowly and prettily north eastwards to end up at the steep cliffs above the sea. At it's seaward end there used to be a tiny pub, not much bigger than a domestic garage, called the Royal Oak, which sadly many years ago disappeared down the ever eroding cliffs. I spent many happy years as a youngster on these cliff tops watching the Sand Martins at their breeding colony in the sandy soil of the cliff face but that colony, like the Royal Oak, are long gone. Oak Lane still retains its old-fashioned narrowness and some hedges but over development each side has seen much of its charm disappear.